Photograph courtesy of KLM.
Culture Spotlight

From Barbie doll to security frontliner: a brief history of the flight attendant

She's come a long way, 
NiƱa Terol-Zialcita | Nov 06 2018

The so-called golden age of flying coincided with the packaging of female flight attendants as sex symbols. Then called stewardesses, they were meant to coax the predominantly male passengers at that time into flying the airline they represented.

This was evident as early as 1955, when United Airlines stewardess Barbara Cameron posed as Playboy magazine’s Miss December. She re-appeared in 1958 as “The Girl Next Door” and was named one of the magazine’s most popular “playmates.” A 1965 article in the Des Moines Register said that male passengers expected stewardesses “to look like a Las Vegas showgirl, and are angry when she doesn’t.”

The original Pan Am girls circa 1950s. 

And in 1967, the bestseller Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Flight Stewardesses revealed the in-flight exploits of stewardesses and their “bad boy” passengers, and listed the celebrities with whom the girls allegedly had had romantic dalliances. The veracity of the accounts has since been challenged and the book is now listed as “adult fiction.”

The in-flight innuendo reached its peak in the 1970s, when National Airlines put out an ad showing a pixie-faced flight attendant with the copy, “I’m Cheryl. Fly me.” Other Mad Men-type gimmicks included Braniff’s “Air Strip,” where “air hostesses” peeled off layers of clothing during the flight; paper dresses for TWA stewardesses (soon junked when male passengers made a habit of burning cigarette holes in them for “fun”—yes, smoking on board was allowed back then); and Eastern Airlines’ little black book giveaway, which was meant to encourage male passengers to get the phone numbers of flight attendants.

The US TV series “Pan Am” captures the halcyon days of air travel in the 1960s.
Controversial ads of National Airlines.

But before women attended to passengers, men held sway. The world’s first flight attendant was a German named Heinrich Kubis, who in 1912 was hired to be chief steward for some of Germany’s zeppelins. It was Kubis who encouraged passengers to jump to safety when the Hindenburg burst into flames on May 6, 1937. He survived the disaster.

Men continued to serve as cabin boys or stewards in the 1920s. The book, Jet Age, reveals how Boeing Air Transport (later called United Air) first considered hiring young Filipino males before the industry started hiring female attendants.

Women finally made their way to the skies in 1930 when a registered nurse and pilot named Ellen Church was taken in by Boeing Air Transport to be a stewardess. Her suggestion to hire nurses to assist nervous, nauseous passengers and convince them that air travel was safe was adopted. However, when World War II erupted and nurses were drafted into the military, it left an opening for pretty girls without any nursing experience to work as stewardesses.

Braniff raised accusations of sexism in the industry. 20th Century Travel: 100 Years of Globe-Trotting

In 1964, the American Civil Rights Act and the Equal Rights Act enabled female attendants to continue flying beyond marriage and motherhood. Both laws also opened up in-flight careers to African-Americans and males.

The following year, Braniff called for the “End of the Plain Plane” by commissioning Italian designer Emilio Pucci to revamp its uniforms. It began the airline industry’s long-standing affair with fashion. Christian Dior designed uniforms for Scandinavian Airlines, Balenciaga for Air France, Pierre Cardin for Pakistani Airlines, and Rudolph Valentino and Ralph Lauren for Trans World Airlines. Pierre Balmain, who once said that “dressmaking is the architecture of movement,” designed Singapore Airlines’ now-iconic Sarong Kebaya.

Maverick budget carriers like Air Asia openly use their female crew to project a fun brand image.

To keep pace with what has come to be known as the stylish “jet set,” stewardesses had to look every bit the high-flying girl. They were once required to “weigh in” before trips, check into “pre-flight appearance rooms,” and stand before “appearance counselors.” The late 70s saw a return to modesty—with higher necklines and longer hemlines on uniforms—and a more functional image for flight attendants.

In 2001, the evolution of cabin crew roles took another step when terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center compelled the entire industry to focus on the roles of flight attendants as safety frontliners enforcing international rules and standards. Training on dangerous goods, passenger handling, and emergency procedures were reinforced. Singapore Airlines, for example, requires flight attendants to undergo a module called “REACT,” which combines basic martial arts and self-defense techniques.

The Finnair flight crew in more modest attire.

No longer just Florence Nightingales or Barbie dolls, female flight attendants are now also expected to be Wonder Women.

The female flight attendant has come a long way from the frankly sexist early days, to the glammed-up “Swingin’ Sixties,” to the post-9/11 world. Her functions may have changed—along with her hemline and her image—but the allure remains. Perhaps it is this fusion of roles—that of nurturer, glamour girl, capable enforcer, and life-saver—that continues to fuel their draw.


Originally appeared in Vault 2012